Sanju Joshi’s shop is located on a dusty road and overlooks a row of fairytale cottages. Sturdy fences, swaying trees, perfect heaps of firewood and colorful flowers, each in its own spot – perhaps a hundred – adorn the perimeter of a small forest in the heart of the Kodomoni division of the Nahortoli Tea Garden in northern India. eastern state of Assam.
Family-run shops or ‘line shops’ feed the surrounding community of more than a thousand tea workers and their families and, thanks to people like the Joshis, help to eradicate malnutrition and non-communicable diseases that have plagued these populations for years. generations.
The “Tea Tribes” of Assam, as they are formally referred to by the local government, are the descendants of three to five generations of tea-working families with roots in the eastern states of Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Bihar.
In the organized sector, about 400,000 tea workers work on about 400 large estates in Upper Assam, more than half of whom are women. Their work has been vital to the economy of the Indian subcontinent. After all, more than half of all tea is grown here and India is the second largest tea producer in the world.
Most of the families living here, an average of five to eight people, have a historical connection with these tea gardens. Life, education, work, everything happens here. There are health facilities, shops, a school…
While tea plantation life has created historical and cultural continuity, it has also perpetuated risky diet-related behaviors, leading to intergenerational malnutrition and non-communicable diseases.
But an NGO intervention that started just before the pandemic has given great hope for change.
I visited Nahortoli tea plantation one afternoon, a month before the end of the picking season. As the day progressed, I watched as sacks of green tea leaves were loaded into huge caged trucks, female tea pickers went home in groups, and men—many involved in the upkeep and oversight of the estate—drew in.
I saw some women leave their groups and head straight to the Joshi’s store to pick up supplies before dark – probably for their family’s dinner. During the winter months, darkness envelops the area from as early as 4:30 PM.
Children returning from school gathered to observe the spectacle of foreigners visiting their neighborhood.
A group of little ones looked at me curiously from a distance and laughed in unison when I greeted them with a jovial “nômôskar!”
I approached them and with the help of my Assamese translator asked them to tell their names and ages. They were between the ages of 10 and 12… not the 6 to 8 age group I assumed when I greeted them so animatedly.
No wonder they laughed at my childish antics.
Saroj Kumar Mohanta, a director at ecociatea consultancy that supports Swiss NGOs, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) to bring healthier food to the tea communities through the Joshis’ and other line stores tells me that 36% of children under five years of age in rural Assam show low height for age, while even more are underweight.
Malnutrition is an ongoing problem among these populations. According to the latest National Family Health Survey conducted by the Government of India, more than 68% of children in rural Assam, aged 6 months to 5 years, and more than 66% of women aged 15 to 49 suffer from anemia. one-eighth of women between the ages of 15 and 19 have been pregnant at least once, but less than one-fifth report taking iron folic acid for 180 days or more during pregnancy.
The unpainted cement and red brick exterior of the Joshis’ line store nestles into the rustic grounds as three women make their way to the outdoor service desk, the vibrant colors of their saris contrasting with the grays and browns of their surroundings. Nutritional message signage, featuring the GAIN brand’s mascot ‘Kaki Maa’ (or Aunty) and affixed to walls and beams, reminds consumers of the necessary foods to maintain good health.
Sanju’s daughter squeals with delight as customers approach the counter.
“What kind of vegetables do you have for sale today?” One of the women questions Sanju with a smile, her gold nose ring glistening in the midday sun.
“I’d like a bottle of oil… You know – the new one with the F+ symbol.”
Healthy eating practices and increasing demand for nutritious foods popping up on the shelves of the new “healthy line stores” were the result of an educational campaign consisting of cultural activities, such as street games and cooking competitions, designed by Ethical Tea Partnershipa membership organization working to improve the lives and environment of tea communities, and GAIN’s Workforce Nutrition Program.
This nutritional literacy has continued to help improve nutrition-related health outcomes within the community.
“Not so long ago people took what they could get; whatever was in store, without asking for a healthier option,” says Sunita Joshi, Sanju’s mother. “If they wanted oil, they just asked for oil. Now they specifically ask for enriched oil, with the F+ symbol.”
Biju Mushahary, Senior Project Manager for Workforce Nutrition at GAIN, describes the shift in preference from regular to enriched oil as one of the more significant project results: oil enriched with fat-soluble vitamins A and D provides 25-30% of the recommended daily amount.
The substitution of dairy substitutes has also improved access to important micronutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin B12 and calcium, essential fatty acids and minerals such as potassium, magnesium and phosphorus, which can play an important role in stimulating growth.
Prior to the healthy line shopping project, the inventory of Sanju’s store and similar stores lacked nutritional value, mainly consisting of spices, biscuits, oil, potatoes, rice and other staples – limited options of basic food items that would make the tea workers buy with cash or credit . Aside from onions, access to vegetables was rare and red lentils were typically the only legumes on offer. Fruit was not filled at all.
Limited economies of scale also made purchasing practices cumbersome and tedious, resulting in additional costs for retailers.
But since the educational foundations have been laid and with the launch of the new market-based solution, store owners are seeking healthier options at better costs and with more logistically efficient processes, and community members – especially women – have become more informed consumers , who demand better nutrition for themselves.
“We wanted to create a win-win scenario for all supply chain actors so that the model could continue beyond the project period,” explains Mushahary of the many benefits for the variety of stakeholders.
During the pandemic, Unilever, the largest buyer of leaves from the Nahortoli estate in the Assam area, recognized the need for the Healthy Line Shop project to improve health, livelihoods and productivity, and created the conducive environment to to ensure its success.
Other tea companies showing similar interest in supporting the project included Taylors of Harrogate, Republic of Tea, Jacob Douwe Egberts, Ringtons Foundation, Wollenhaupt, Reginald Ames and Bigelow. This allowed GAIN, Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) and Ecociate to work together to make nutritious eating more accessible to tens of thousands of tea workers.
“This is a promising model that can have a lasting impact on the health of tea plantation workers and their families,” says Unilever Chief Sustainability Officer Rebecca Marmot.
“Unilever is proud to support these innovative market-based solutions together with GAIN, the Ethical Tea Partnership and Ecociate to create access to nutritious food through Healthy Line Shops, alongside a behavioral change campaign.”
Joshis’ store was one of the first to benefit from the model and since then 32 Healthy Line stores across 8 Assam tea estates – with more than 120 more stores in the pipeline – have made nutritious food more accessible to Assam tea workers and their families .
The Joshis say the one-time free supply of nutritious food items originally offered to kick-start the project was appreciated but not necessary to convince them of its benefits.
Public health has been a priority for the Joshi family for several generations.
Sanju’s grandfather was a pharmacist and his father worked in the community hospital. His mother, Sunita, has been a Community Health Volunteer (CHV) for nearly thirty years.
“I see a lot of night blindness, diabetes, and high blood pressure in this community, and I know firsthand the connection between a healthy diet and a healthier life,” she says.
The Joshis currently invest more than 25,000 rupees a month in a growing basket of nutritious food products, including fortified mustard oil, milk, eggs, legumes, vegetables and fruits, among others.
Other line stores in the area have also embraced the approach, and the added nutritional diversity has had major implications for future nutritional outcomes.
“I talk to my customers about eating better,” says Sanju. “If you give people better health, they are better producers and consumers. I have seen my sales increase as a result. This is great for me because I want to give my daughter the best and make sure she has a bright future.”
The model has also helped reduce the cost of doing business for the Healthy Line Shops. With the new distribution network, designed by Ecociate, dedicated sourcing providers have been able to purchase food for the Healthy Line Shops at fair prices and have it delivered to your home at discounted rates. The project team provides business support to Healthy Line Shop owners to support their growing business, enabling them to become more profitable.
Working through the existing retail network in the local community, the project has improved the livelihoods of line shop owners, provided multiple nutritious food options and helps improve the nutrition of Assam tea communities for future generations.
“When they were growing up, I taught my three kids about the importance of healthy eating,” says Sunita. “With my Healthy Line Shop I now have the power to implement long-term change.”